by Blakeney Schick
My mind wanders every day as I put on my makeup. One morning, I was thinking about taking some sweaters to the dry cleaners — something that had been on my mental to-do list for about a week — and I said to myself, “I really should have done that yesterday.” And then I stopped and looked at myself in the mirror.
I say the word “should” to myself all the time. Some “shoulds” help us express our goals. They allow us to express our concern for the people we care about and share our advice with them. They can help us plan for the future. “Shoulds” can reveal not only the minutiae of our day-to-day lives and our obligations, but also our aspirations for ourselves and the world around us. But that’s not the kind of “should” that had me stop what I was doing that morning.
The “should” that gave me pause is this one: I should send that email to my friend who lives 4 states away, I shouldn’t have said that last night at dinner, I should eat better, I shouldn’t have to deal with this again. Used this way, it’s a word that isn’t very helpful because instead of keeping me on-task, my “shoulds” often become a way of showing myself how I’m coming up short or falling behind or how things just aren’t measuring up.
But regardless of whether “should” is a tool for hope or recrimination, it’s never about what I’m doing or what’s happening right then. Instead, it has me planning for a future event that may never happen or replaying a past that I can’t change. My “shoulds” always take me out of the present moment.
So that morning, I decided to see if I could go the rest of the day without the word “should.” Every time the word popped into my head, I told myself, I’ll change it into “am” or “will.” If I couldn’t do that, I would try to let it go. That day, as I tried not to fall into my habit of pondering every single “should,” I started weeding out the busy work that occupies my mind. And there was a lot of it. Some things I took care of immediately. Others became a reasonable to-do list. The rest, which was the majority of the “shoulds,” I tried to let go of. I wasn’t entirely successful, but the news ticker that runs through my mind got a little quieter and a little slower — and I had that much more mental space to focus on whatever I was actually doing at that moment.
I didn’t expect that my one-day exercise would bring a sweeping change, and it didn’t. It takes time to break down such an ingrained habit. But my relationship with “should” has shifted a little. I hear it when I say it to other people. When I say it to myself, I can often cut short the chatter that has always followed “should” a little more quickly, and that helps me stay in the present moment a little more easily. I don’t think I could ever get rid of “should” entirely — and that’s okay. After all, it can help me plan and make my way toward my goals. But most of the time, it doesn’t serve me — and I still haven’t taken those sweaters to the dry cleaners.
Blakeney Schick is a public radio producer who follows events and elections. She started going to yoga 8 years ago in the hopes that it would help her stand up straighter. It has. But she’s stayed on the mat because yoga’s also made her stronger in every possible way. Blakeney found her way to Mala in late 2007, and finished Mala’s 200-hour teacher training in 2012. She is also a regular contributor to the Mala Yoga blog.